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Iraqi modernism and the representation of femininity: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati

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The relationship between literary modernism and the representation of femininity is an area that has not been much explored, particularly in the Arabic context. This article initiates such an exploration by examining the function of the feminine in the poetry of two pioneering Arab modernists, the Iraqi poets Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati. The poetry of these two leading figures has been celebrated for its dramatic ruptures on formal and thematic levels with traditional as well as Romantic Arabic poetic forms. Their poetry, and that of their contemporaries, is widely regarded as inaugurating the modernization of Arabic poetry. This article argues, however, that despite these formal and thematic breaks, Arabic modernist poetry does not significantly alter the Romantic subordination of femininity to the masculine self. The representation of the female, and particularly the female beloved, remains the means of objectifying the poet's desire, rather than taking on any kind of independent, self-contained significance. In other words, the feminine continues to serve as a means of projecting a representation of the authentic human self and externalizing the contradictions of this self. What changes with modernism is the nature of the self and its desire that the poetry seeks to represent. The modernist vision of artistic perception as creative transformation of the world is based on a (somewhat) new way of understanding the self, explicitly opposed to Romanticism, and explicitly communal in nature. Feminine sexuality, the embodiment of the material realm of death and dissolution in Romanticism, is redeemed in Modernist poetry. Yet this sexuality is merely the catalyst for the poet's revolutionary, transformative, function in human society. Femininity has changed, but remains a moment within the masculine and the communal self.
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Keywords: Femininity; Modernism; Nationality; Poetry; Representation; Sexuality

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Arizona

Publication date: August 1, 2010

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  • The International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies is a new peer-reviewed, tri- annual, academic publication devoted to the study of modern Iraq. In recognition of Iraq's increasingly important position on the world stage, the time is right for a new journal dedicated to scholarly engagement with the country.
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